We first heard of the Prison Policy Initiative through their campaign against postcard-only policies in jails. It hit us close to home when we got wind that the Santa Barbara sheriff was trying to implement a postcard-only policy in Santa Barbara county. PPI’s accompanying report on the matter, “Return to Sender,” takes a revealing look at the disappointing, growing trend of limiting jail mail to postcards only. Since then they’ve continued their scrutiny of prison correspondence, examining hidden fees and near-extortion rate in the jail phone industry. They are a small, powerful organization and we wanted to learn more about the origin of their work and what they’re working on today. Read on to learn more about prison gerrymandering, why it’s so politically pernicious and PPI’s important work to end the practice:
Juvenile In Justice: How did the Prison Policy Initiative get started?
Prison Policy Initiative: The Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 when three students — one law, one graduate, and one undergraduate — discovered that the sheer size of the prison population was combining with an outdated Census Bureau rule to dramatically distort how political decisions are made in this country. Those students, one of whom is now our Executive Director Peter Wagner, decided to found the Prison Policy Initiative to put numbers on the problem and research solutions.
JinJ: What is the most important issue Prison Policy Initiative is working on today?
PPI: Most of our work revolves around research and advocacy to end the pernicious practice of “prison gerrymandering.” This problem stems from the Census Bureau’s method of tabulating incarcerated people at the locations of correctional facilities, rather than at their home addresses. Even though incarcerated people remain residents of their home communities and, when they can vote, vote absentee at home, their population counts are credited to the community that contains the correctional facility. This causes big problems for democracy when state and local governments use unadjusted census data to even out their electoral districts because people who live near prisons get extra political clout and everyone else’s votes are diluted. Prison gerrymandering also creates perverse incentives for legislators who represent districts that contain prisons to advocate for counterproductive criminal justice policy that keeps prisons full.
The good news is that we’re making great progress towards ending prison gerrymandering. So far, four states have passed legislation to solve the problem by counting incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes, and there are similarly promising bills pending in more states than even before. On the local level, more than 200 cities and counties around the country have also rejected prison gerrymandering. What used to be a little-known data quirk has grown into a national movement that creates new allies between the criminal justice reform and the voting rights communities.
JinJ: How does Prison Policy Initiative envision the incarceration system in 10-20 years? Any thoughts specifically on the juvenile prison system?
PPI: Fortunately policymakers and the general public are increasingly concerned about the fiscal and social costs of swollen prison populations. It’s simply not possible to maintain the incarceration binge that we started in the late 1970s, so governments are more and more willing to look at what empirical research says can keep us safe in a more efficient, healthy, and productive way. Recent juvenile justice reforms, such as an increasing focus on community-based solutions instead of just locking kids up, suggest that the political climate is finally becoming more attuned to the reality that investing in treating juveniles fairly and helping them succeed benefits everyone in the long run.
On the flip side, the criminal justice system has become so intwined with our political, economic, and social structures that systemic change is likely still a ways off. There’s lots of work left to do.
JinJ: What are Prison Policy Initiative’s goals for the future? What issues do you want to be tackling?
PPI: Our overarching goal is to expose the ways that the U.S. experiment of mass incarceration has a profound and multifaceted impact on everyone, not just those who are directly involved in the criminal justice system. For the past decade we’ve focused on how mass incarceration skews democracy, but we’re starting to take on additional projects about how prison and jail communications policies impact family stability and public safety. We’ll continue to expand the scope of our research to document more ways that the scope of U.S. criminal justice policy extends far beyond the walls of prisons and jails.
JinJ: What is the best thing that a concerned citizen can do today to make change in the prison system?
PPI: National, state, and local criminal justice reform campaigns are everywhere, and we can effect the most powerful change when we find one another. Reach out to a local organization working in your community, or get in touch with a national organization that’s working on an issue that you’re particularly concerned about. It’s policymakers’ job to answer to us, so an informed and concerned public is a key to changing the prison system.
Connect with the Prison Policy Initiative: